Once upon a time the police officer on the beat was one of the respected pillars of the working class community, back when there was a working class community. After more than three decades of political and economic neoliberalism the backbone of the traditional industrial working class has been broken. Manufacturing has migrated, within globalised markets, in search of the cheapest labour, and the resultant deindustrialisation has shattered what was the working class into a number of new emerging socio-economic classes. Increased reliance on service industries and the high-tech industries have swallowed up much of what had been the industrial working class, leaving behind a rump which quickly sank to swell the size of the dangerous underclass. The working class which had a modicum of respect for the role of the police is no more, and the underclass has always had an antagonistic relationship with police authority. One of the reasons for the creation of the police force in the first place was to control or police the underclass which had been pitted against the working class in the slums of old London. Now that this derelict class has grown as a consequence of neoliberal policies, the need for its control has become a serious preoccupation of Western states.
At every stage of its existence the police force has been the guard dog of the economic stratification of society; the wealthy have recruited their bodyguards from the ranks of the working class to frustrate the aspirations of the underclass. This mentality of class control has always been very much part of the fabric of police training – even here in Ireland – and so class prejudice is a systemic reality in police culture. Those attracted to the thin blue line are individuals who typically have a clear internal definition of the goodies and the baddies, a dualism which invariably makes it impossible to differentiate between the poor and the criminal. The proof of this conclusion can be tested in any one of the nation’s prisons; the ratio of underprivileged to privileged prisoners has always been greater. We are left to assume that either the poor are more criminal or that the criminal justice system is poor. All of this can of course be seen on the street when the police interact with the long-term unemployed and dangerous sorts in the inner city. The police officer who affects a light, courteous manner when speaking with passers-by in more affluent areas takes on a more defensive, if not hostile, stance when dealing with the less-well-off, and openly talks of the inner city flats as bad areas.